Zuly in a pink dress in front of a black background
Features & Articles

Art and advocacy intersect through this soprano opera singer’s performances and scholarship

  • Arts and Humanities
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • School of Social Work

Before Zuly Inirio (SOC WK ’23G) could talk, she would request to hear songs by mimicking her parents’ records.

Every babysitter knew that “Sesame Street” or bachata and merengue — the soundtrack to Inirio’s childhood in the Dominican Republic — were the only things that could calm her when she was upset. And every Saturday morning, the rhythms of Juan Luis Guerra, her mom’s favorite singer, signaled to her and her seven siblings that it was time to clean.

“People see music as a comfort, joy, entertainment. It was those things for me early on,” she said. “That I ended up a musician makes sense.”

Now a professional soprano opera singer, Inirio has performed throughout the United States and Europe. As the co-director for the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Ethnic Studies Research (CESR), her artistry and scholarship have intersected and evolved into activism. In 2020, Inirio founded the Afro-Latinx Song and Opera Project, which aims to decolonize classical music by producing new works that spotlight Afro-Latinx narratives and uplift contributors from these communities.

Most recently, Inirio performed for the University Art Gallery’s Fall Exhibition Reception on Oct. 12, and can be seen in various upcoming shows including an artist showcase with the local 1Hood Media Academy and an April 24 ¡Tumbao! A Celebration of Afro-Latin recital.

“I’m looking at what’s going on in society and how people view Blackness, but through the lens of music,” Inirio said.

The CESR advances student and faculty spaces for community-building through innovative multidisciplinary and collaborative research exploring race and ethnicity, she said, directly aligning with her project because of how it adopts a community-centric model.

Inirio said she didn’t have to look beyond her personal experiences to realize the need for such an initiative and for increasing the representation of Latinx communities in classical music. She relocated to Pittsburgh from Germany in 2019 due to an environment in Europe where microaggressions were normalized.

At the height of COVID-19 in 2020, she had time to reflect on her experiences in music, which included challenges she faced as a bachelor’s and master’s student at Florida’s New World School of the Arts and Louisiana State University, respectively. She questioned why she seldom saw legendary Black and Brown classical performers like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Martina Arroyo, Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett in the standard curriculum, despite their contributions.

“I also had some difficulties throughout my doctorate because of systemic racism within academic institutions,” she said. She was required to perform a 30-minute recital and wrote a more than 300-page dissertation consisting of a performance guide, historical information and an analysis of the music, while her peers, who she said were not people of color, performed only 15 minutes of music and submitted 80 to 100-page dissertations.

“My experiences in academia opened my eyes to issues of inequity, and how pervasive and accepted they are if we’re not intentional about showing up for people in a way that dismantles the inequity,” she said.

The death of George Floyd is what compelled her to act.

“I was horrified by what happened [and] also feeling so validated in what I was experiencing, globally,” she said. “I sat down with myself to better understand the experiences I’ve had throughout my job and abroad. I did a lot of reading and researching about social constructs and was like, ‘What do you want your impact to be?’ That’s the driving force behind everything I do now.”

In 2021, after the Afro-Latinx Song and Opera Project received a $15,000 Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant, she realized others also recognized a need for this kind of support.

“It gave me proof that people want to see multiple expressions of Blackness that exist and stories of the Black diaspora by the Black diaspora with nuance and authenticity,” Inirio said.

She pursued her master’s in social work at Pitt to incorporate mental health into the arts space and further advocate from an academic standpoint.

“The systems are in place,” she said, “but how are we going to make a positive, lasting change, a space that goes beyond representation and inclusivity, that is intentional in making sure everybody feels seen, heard and supported?”

Big stage beginnings

Certain their children were instilled with principles from their Dominican culture and community, Inirio’s parents moved their family back to the U.S. when she was 8 years old, settling in Miami, Florida. There, at age 15, she debuted opera as her new musical direction. The turning point came when her sister took her to the opera to broaden her musical horizons.

“I fell in love with the spectacle of opera,” she said. “It was a combination of the beautiful costumes, the amazing set, the incredible orchestra and the sound.” Specifically, the soloists impressed her with their ability to amplify their voice to the extent that she could hear them in the back of the theater.

“I remember telling my sister: ‘I don’t know what this is, but I’m going to do it.’ I was obsessed. From then on, it was about how to become an opera singer. But I [didn’t] see anybody that looks like me,” she said.

At first she considered teaching music instead. But encouragement from a voice teacher and professor helped change her mind and convinced her that her voice was a good fit for performance. Now, her mission is to ensure others don’t experience what she did.

“I get to sing about me and people like me, which I was dreaming of years ago,” Inirio said. “It gives me pride. Ultimately, my project is for the community, so the next group of Afro-Latin people that want to sing don’t have to go through all this trouble. They’ll be able to buy the anthology, have the music ready to go and feel seen and that their stories are being told already.”


— Kara Henderson, photography courtesy of Zuly Inirio